Freedom fruit: Watermelon has a diverse history, can be used in many ways
In the U.S., watermelon seems to be the quintessential fruit of the season. It wasn't until I spent a summer in San Francisco about six years ago and learned a variety of preparations of watermelon that I was able to view the fruit as more than the peasant food of the melon family.
Growing up, I preferred cantaloupe to watermelon, thinking the latter had not that much flavor and a chalky mouthfeel. But it seemed to be everywhere during summertime. Deep sighs of dissatisfaction would escape me at camp when the presented snack was sliced watermelon.
Historically, within the African-American community, watermelon possesses negative connotations of its own. While I wasn't crazy about the taste of it to begin with, once I became of age to read about Jim Crow laws and to see depictions of blacks eating watermelon during that time, I seemed to make a point to not eat watermelon.
According to an article in The Atlantic, watermelon possessed connotations of uncleanliness and laziness. Eating it is messy, and while growing watermelons is easy, it's hard to eat the fruit and continue working. These were some of the tropes around blacks and watermelons.
It wasn't that I never ate watermelon, but I certainly spent most of my teens and 20s avoiding consuming the fruit in front of white people. I didn't want to be viewed as the same as those pictures or stereotypes. And then I learned, that like so many other foods enjoyed in the U.S., watermelon has its origins in Africa.
It is disputed as to whether it was first cultivated in southern Africa or in Egypt, but it's agreed that Africans were the first to cultivate it; and it arrived to the U.S., like so many other foods, via the Atlantic slave trade.
Watermelon, once upon a time, represented the success of African-Americans. After the emancipation of slaves, as The Atlantic article reported, "free black people, grew, ate and sold watermelon, and in doing so, the fruit became a symbol of their freedom."
Watermelons come in many varieties and are best cultivated during the middle of June through the end of August. The yellow watermelon makes a flavorful gazpacho when blended with country bread, olive oil and lemon juice. Feta, watermelon, cucumber and mint have become a staple salad for me to serve for large groups. I recently prepared a batch for a friend's all-vegetarian wedding, and it was certainly a favorite.
The rind, typically tossed aside by children, can be saved, thinly sliced and pickled for a snack or a simple garnish to salads.
Watermelon, Feta, Mint Salad
1 small watermelon rind removed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup balsamic vinegar reduced to half
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup mint, thinly sliced
1 cucumber small diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
In a mixing bowl, toss watermelon, cucumber, mint and feta.
Transfer salad to a wide, shallow bowl or a large plate and spread out evenly. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic reduction. Season with salt to taste.
4 cups watermelon juice (one small watermelon pureed in juicer/blender and strained)
½ cup tomato water (2-3 tomatoes pureed and strained)
½ loaf country bread, no crust
½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ cup sherry vinegar
½ cup olive oil
1/8 cup lemon juice
Salt to taste
Soak the bread in the watermelon juice and tomato water for one hour, or until soft. Transfer to a blender and puree with vinegar, cayenne, lemon juice. Slowly add the olive oil. Season with salt to taste. Serve chilled.
Pickled Watermelon Rind
Rind of one large watermelon, all flesh removed
1 serrano chile, thinly sliced, seeds removed if desired
1 1-inch piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced
2 star anise pods
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 cup sugar
1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
Using a paring knife, trim the white of the rind to make them level and as even as possible.
Slice watermelon rind into thin slices.
Bring chile, ginger, star anise, salt, peppercorns, sugar, vinegar and ½ cup water to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar and salt. Add watermelon rind and return to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until just tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, setting a small lid or plate directly on top of rind to keep submerged in brine, if needed.
Transfer rind and liquid to an airtight container; cover and chill at least 12 hours.